Last week’s House session was held in a large conference room at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Manchester. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)
As the New Hampshire House met in Manchester Thursday, lawmakers struck an urgent pace. Hoping to avoid a snowstorm that blanketed much of the state Friday, they rushed through bills, tabling where they could and limiting debate to avoid coming in the next day.
Rep. Katherine Rogers had a more pressing reason to hurry. The Concord Democrat has been battling uterine cancer for nearly a year, and she was scheduled for another round of chemotherapy on Friday. Zooming in from her hospital bed was not an option.
Months into her cancer treatment, Rogers had decided to show up to the House voting days anyway – both Wednesday and Thursday – receiving clearance from doctors who told her to mask up.
“I’ve always lived my life this way,” she said in an interview in the hallway. “You take precautions; you do everything you can to prevent yourself from needlessly putting yourself in harm’s way. But this is a profession I’ve chosen: to be involved in politics.”
Her decision touched on a bigger quandary that has continued to bitterly divide lawmakers. Two years into a pandemic that has proven dangerous for older and immunocompromised lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats are unable to agree on whether or how to allow remote participation in House proceedings.
Legislative leaders have tried a litany of in-person, spacious venues, from the University of New Hampshire Whittemore Center hockey arena under Democratic Speaker Steve Shurtleff, to a UNH outdoor field hockey field in December 2020, to a drive-in-style car park the following month, to a Bedford indoor sports complex throughout 2021.
Last week, the Legislature tried a new home: a large conference room at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Manchester. More than 350 representatives wheeled up to the hotel’s multistory parking lot, and filtered into the hallways toward a bright room with seats and microphones.
The ordeal was at this point broadly familiar. Lawmakers wielded remote-control voting devices, connected to computers at the front. Speakers approached standing microphones and faced the House speaker. Professional cameramen under contract with the House recorded the proceedings and broadcast them to the public, which was not allowed in the room. The lawmakers broke for lunch served in cardboard boxes, and took smoke breaks outside the hotel doors. Some lawmakers toted suitcases, taking advantage of the locale and checking into rooms.
“It just makes it a lot easier to not have to drive an hour and a half,” said Rep. Suzanne Smith, a Hebron Democrat who had booked two nights at the hotel.
In a vote early Wednesday – one of the first of the new year – Democratic lawmakers pushed for a change to the House rules to allow for the possibility of remote participation in full House sessions. Democrats, such as Rep. Lucy Weber of Walpole, framed the rule change as a first step, a regulatory hurdle to clear before designing a remote-voting system. Republicans, such as Deputy Speaker Steven Smith of Charlestown, called the rule change premature and asked for a detailed implementation plan from Democrats first.
Ultimately, the effort failed, 169-186, along party lines. But Democrats say they aren’t finished advocating.
Citing a November 2020 Supreme Court advisory opinion that stated that the House can redefine “quorum” as determined by the state constitution and pass rules to allow remote participation, Democrats have argued there was nothing stopping the body from acting. A separate legal fight by Democrats to force remote participation is continuing in federal court. And a health care advocacy group has circulated a petition to call for extending remote participation options to House and Senate hearings.
For Weber, the fight is about more than just the pandemic.
“If we want an inclusive process, where representatives represent all walks (and) stations of life, then we need to make provisions that allow for disabled persons, for persons who are raising young children, persons who have other barriers to be able to serve,” Weber said. “And so remote participation, quite aside from something like COVID, allows a broader participation and it also allows an infinitely larger participation by our citizenry.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have given differing reasons for not supporting remote participation. For some, like Smith, it’s a logistical issue, and one that will only be solved by a detailed technological plan that hasn’t materialized.
But for many of Smith’s colleagues, the opposition is more fundamental.
“No. If you don’t want to come and vote in person, you don’t get to vote,” said Rep. Susan Delemus, a Rochester Republican.
That sentiment is strongly felt by many on the Republican side. And conservatives have their own campaign for Speaker Sherman Packard: returning lawmakers to Representatives Hall.
“We have freshmen who got elected who have not had a session in the State House,” said Rep. Keith Ammon, a New Boston Republican. “They haven’t sat in their seat in the State House. They don’t have the experience of that. That historical moment where you walk up the steps and sit in your seat, you know?”
Ammon also argues the off-site meetings, in which legislators are penned away from reporters, lobbyists, and members of the public, have removed the sense of immediate accountability for lawmakers that comes with the gravitas of Representatives Hall.
Ammon and others are pushing Packard to transition back as soon as possible. Still, even Ammon says the decision could be at the whim of the COVID-19 omicron variant that continues to spread through the state.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” he said.
A big divide
For now, the status quo – meeting in person but away from the tight confines of the State House – has persisted. But the peace between the parties has remained uneasy.
On Thursday, responding to a social media report alleging that a lawmaker had said she had tested positive for COVID-19, Rep. William Marsh, a Brookfield Democrat, brought the accusation to the House floor. Packard gave an immediate forceful reply, pointing to the rapid tests the leadership had distributed to lawmakers ahead of voting.
“If there is somebody in this room that has tested positive, I say right now” to leave the room, Packard said, in remarks that were garbled by glitches in the steaming service. “We sent those tests out for a reason.”
It was a rare moment of unity over a health crisis with little common ground. But without surprise communication breakthroughs between Republicans and Democrats, no one on either side expects much to change. The meetings will continue in spaced-out venues, in one conference room or another, until one side’s vision for the best way to meet prevails.
On Sunday, House Leadership emailed members to inform them that two attendees of the voting sessions had tested positive for COVID-19. The Speaker’s Office had directly informed identified close contacts of those members, the email noted.
“Please maintain a high degree of vigilance as community transmission rates continue to be high across the state,” the email stated. “Please monitor yourself for symptoms, and stay home if you’re sick.”
As they continue the pressure to allow remote participation, Democrats acknowledge the ultimate decision to stay or leave each venue is in the hands of one person.
“I talk to the speaker and I know he’s very anxious to get back to Reps Hall as soon as possible,” Shurtleff said. “And I know he’s getting a lot of pressure from his caucus. … But to the speaker’s credit, he is putting the safety of the members (first).”
Late into the meeting Thursday, the mood soured further. Near the end of the proceedings, Rogers made a motion from her wheelchair to seek unanimous consent to address the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021, and to thank the chamber for its support through her illness. But Republican members requested a vote to revoke unanimous consent, and Rogers’ speech was cut off before it began.
Minutes later, lawmakers filed into the hallways, circled through the DoubleTree parking lot, and drove away.
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